September 8, 2014
Distance: 10 miles
Traveled: Evolution Basin to Big Pete Meadow
“…big bossy cumuli began to grow above the forest, and the rainstorm pouring from them is the most imposing I have yet seen. The silvery zigzag lightning lances are longer than usual, and the thunder gloriously impressive, keen, crashing, intensely concentrated, speaking with such tremendous energy it would seem that an entire mountain is being shattered at every stroke… At last the clear ringing strokes are succeeded by deep low tones that grow gradually fainter as they roll afar into the recesses of the echoing mountains, where they seem to be welcomed home.”
– John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
My eyes flew open from a dead sleep. RAIN. Shit.
I looked at the clock on my inReach – 5:30am. We still had another 45 minutes til sunrise. I yelled to the guys to wake them up “Guys! It’s raining!!”
The delayed tired-sounding response: “It’s been raining all night.”
I was so tired I had surprisingly slept through it.
Normally rain would not be something that would jolt me awake from a dead sleep, but we were very exposed on this small patch of alpine tundra, and by far the highest things around. When the sun came up and the air warmed, it was very likely these rain clouds would turn into a thunderstorm – we were not in a very safe position. We still had to get over the nearly 12,000′ Muir Pass , and had 6 rocky alpine miles before we got back down to the treeline.
Less than 5 hours of sleep, on top of the 21-mile day the day before, did not feel good. I was beyond tired, but I couldn’t let myself go back to sleep. I lay there as long as I could until I could not ignore the need to pee. Turning on my headlamp, I fumbled around in my dark tent for my rain gear, and suited up for a quick escape.
There was enough early light outside that the dark clouds hanging heavy above us were clear. I got my first real glimpse of the landscape I had not entirely seen the night before.
This was an unexpected side effect of a night hike – you walk on foreign terrain through the dark, fall asleep, and wake up not entirely having bearings on where you are. Outside my tent door, I was surrounded by the unfamiliar…I felt like I fell asleep in Evolution Valley, had a weird dream about walking on Mars by moonlight, and during the night my tent was magically transported up a mountain. Maybe I was still asleep.
The rain was cold and constant. The sky was ill-boding and looked promiseful of impending electricity. I peed and grabbed my bear canister and brought it back to my tent. No signs of stirring in any of the guys tents.
I didn’t want to pack up on the rain, so my best hope was that we would catch a break and could quickly pack up and make a run for it. We started talking to each other through the filter of our tent walls and warm sleeping bags trying to formulate our exit strategy. Friz and Slippers were on board with waiting for the rain to letup before heading out, but Chops decided he wasn’t going to wait and started packing up to head to the Muir Hut.
After Chops left, we all took turns spying on the sky from the confines of our cozy tents for signs of a break. Just after sunrise, the sky brightened a bit and the rain slowed to a nearly imperceptible sprinkle. It was our chance.
We packed up our wet tents and grabbed some water from the nearby creek – there was no time for breakfast though, we needed to get going.
The landscape in Evolution Basin was incredible. I had never seen such a sparse granite world. No trees, barely any vegetation at all above the small piece of tundra we camped on – all granite and talus for miles.
I felt horrible. The hours following would prove to be the most trying of my time on the John Muir Trail. Looking back, the 3 mile climb up Muir Pass was really not that bad (in terms of difficulty). I have walked up many other passes and mountains that were much more strenuous, but none felt as taxing as this. I couldn’t breathe. My asthma was giving me hell, and I couldn’t catch my breath. I had a few mini-attacks on the walk up, which were giving me horrible anxiety. I felt like shit, and honestly, I was scared. I was now heading into the much-tougher southern Sierras where I would have to tackle big passes every day, and I started to question if I could even do it. My legs and body felt strong, but my lungs refused to keep up….and because of that, my mind was following suit – with a revolving door of doubt.
This was Slippers last day on the trail, and tomorrow he would be leaving over Bishop Pass. I couldn’t help but think that maybe I might be smarter to join him. My mind was a mess, and I was tired, and hungry. I watched Friz above me zipping swiftly up the switchbacks. I just wanted to be able to move uphill with the same ease. I fought tears for probably the last 1.5 miles of the climb.
Finally we were at the doorstep of the Muir Hut. It was a rewarding feeling to finally see this hut in person after seeing so many photos of it over the years. The John Muir Memorial Rest Hut was built in 1930 by the Sierra Club to provide emergency shelter to hikers during storms. Originally it had a working fireplace, but the fireplace has since been blocked and cannot be used. A good write-up on the history of the hut can be found here.
We opened the sturdy wood door, and found Friz getting settled in inside. Next to him was Chops, already comfortably at home. This was a typical Chops moment. Here I am struggling up a mountainside, disheveled, beaten, and cold – only to stumble upon Chops lounging cozy and comfortable inside the Muir Hut at 12,000’, dry, completely content and unfazed. I loved the effortlessness of Chops. We all did. Since that morning I have expected that someday in the distant future I will summit a random mountain – huffing and puffing, scrambling my way to the summit, bruised, and sore… and there, at the top, will be Chops: no sweat on his brow, a steaming hot beverage in hand, maybe reading a book, probably relaxing on some sort of lounge chair, stroking a lynx he tamed on the way up the mountain. And I won’t even be surprised.
We peeled off our rain gear, dropped our packs, and took out our tents to hopefully dry them a bit. We found seats on the bench that rounded the walls and finally ate our morning meals. Friz made some green tea for all of us. It was so cozy in the hut on that stormy morning.
My mind was still racing and struggling with doubt. I really wasn’t sure if I could do this. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to anymore. That 3-mile walk to the top of the pass had been miserable – it’s tough to even communicate through these written words the range of emotions I was feeling during that morning walk. I finally broke down in front of all of them. Poor guys. Like three deer caught in headlights, they stared over at my totally mentally and physically exhausted self, not knowing what to say or do to fix me. I just wanted to be able to consume oxygen like a normal person. It didn’t seem like too much to ask.
Sidenote: this day would later serve as proof of a phenomenon I would learn to be a fact after I finished the trail. If I don’t get enough sleep, or if I’m particularly tired or exhausted, or even overworked – my lungs protest. My asthma flares up and becomes particularly difficult to manage. I didn’t know it at the time, but the only reason this day was so incredibly hard was because I was tired. Like an over-tired toddler, I just needed sleep and everything would be fine. But, I didn’t know this at the time.
We devoured our calories, and talked, and breathed, and after some time Chops shoved his tent back into his bag, rose, shook our hands, and said goodbye and good luck to us all. We knew that this was a real goodbye, and unlike other days when we would inevitably wander into each other’s path later that day – this was actually goodbye, and we would not see Chops again on the trail.
The trail enigma effortlessly moved on.
Not soon after, we layered on our rain gear and pack covers for the walk down into Le Conte Canyon. The precipitation was relatively peaceful at the time, and we had no way of knowing how long our good fortune would continue.
We started down toward Le Conte Canyon. The landscape felt like a scene from Lord of the Rings.
It rained on us off and on, and then finally the rain seemed to stop and we had a small glimpse of blue sky. I was getting hot in my rain gear, so I decided I was probably in the clear to take it off.
Of course there was no wood anywhere for me to knock on.
10 minutes after declaring a premature dry victory over the looming storm, it started to rain again. Of course. I stopped and pulled off my pack to put my camera back into a waterproof stuff sack, and put on my rain jacket again – and while stopped to layer-up, Friz decided to just keep going ahead. None of us thought anything of it, as we tended to hike alone at our own pace during the day. We assumed we’d see him around the next bend.
In superb timing, the sky then unleashed. It poured. Slippers and I started hustling as quickly as we could down the steep trail to get to tree line, which still seemed so far away… and then came the thunder right over our heads. We stopped and looked at each other in panic – the expression on Slippers’ face is forever something I will remember (I’m sure mine was equally memorable). Immediately we started to book it down the trail as quickly as we could with thunder rumbling around us.
Where was Friz??
Finally we reached the treeline (more like severely stunted Whitebark Pines, rather than actual trees). We thought we saw what looked like Friz’s tent – but upon closer inspection it was not. The rain was now officially a cold downpour, and we decided it was best to just set up our tents for a bit and wait for the heavy rain to pass.
We were worried about Friz, and were hoping that this nasty bout of frigid rain would clear up soon and we would find him waiting not far down the trail.
We hunkered down. I crawled in my tent with a racing mind. I was miserable. I needed to decide what to do. This was supposed to be fun, and I was not having fun. I mulled over maps and miles trying to make a decision if I could really safely finish this. If I did bail, Friz would be so disappointed – but it would be worse if I pushed myself farther down the trail to discover that I really couldn’t breathe on the climbs, and have no good exit points. I was feeling so confused, and totally drained. I quickly fell into a deep sleep for more than an hour, and it felt so good and necessary. I woke to Slippers yelling to me that there was a break in the rain and we should make a run for it.
I moved, half-awake, into action taking down my tent and packing up.
The trail dropped steeply into the canyon, and with water flowing down the trail like a creek, it was particularly slippery and dangerous. No sign of Friz. The rain picked up again quickly – the heaviest downpour yet. Hail began to fall mixing with the rain. We ducked under a tree for shelter for a bit, and then at the first sign of letting up we started moving again. We moved as fast as we could down the slick trail, focused on getting to Big Pete meadow where we were supposed to set up camp for the night. In our wet rush, we flew past the ‘Rock Monster” not stopping for a photo – I was bummed, I had been looking forward to taking some stupid photo with rock. We passed trail crews, I described Friz and asked if they had seen him – and they said they hadn’t. I was getting a little worried.
Finally reaching Big Pete Meadow, and finding a nice campsite right on the trail (where Friz could easily see us) – we had to decide what to do. There was no sign of him, yet he knew where we were planning on camping. We took a gamble and set up, hoping he would wander by at some point. After setting up our tents again, we each bundled up in the dry warmth of our shelters and took a very long, much needed, nap.
We barely left our tents for the rest of the day. Occasionally I would wake up to wet, tired-looking, hikers walking past our camp – I asked each of them if they had seen Friz, and none had. Calley finally came by, and her and I exchanged inReach contact numbers, and she said she would send me a text if she ran into him. I slept and slept and slept. I was surprised at how much sleep my body needed.
Slippers and I finally managed to wake up enough to make dinner sitting in the doors of our tents. I wasn’t even hungry, but I knew I needed to eat, and I also wanted to get rid of any possible ounces of food weight I could. Slippers formulated his plan to leave before sunrise the next morning so he could get over Bishop Pass and get to the trailhead early enough to hitch a ride. I still had no idea what to do. Hearing him talk about town, and food, and knowing he was going to be back in civilization the next night made it so tempting to follow. Yet a huge part of me could not fathom leaving when I had come so far. Over 140 miles was no small feat, and if my lungs had gotten me this far – why couldn’t they get me to Whitney Portal?
After dinner, the rain seemed to clear, and we talked a bit more and finally succumbed to going to bed for the night. It was the last night I would be camping with Slippers, and I was feeling pretty sad that our little trail family was about to have one less member.
As the darkness set in, and no sign of Friz came to light – I started to think that maybe Friz had just decided to continue on without me, and I was trying to come to terms with the fact that it was possible I would not see him again on the trail. Did I want to finish this trail alone? Though I had started this trail solo, I had grown to love the company of these friends. The prospect of being alone again was an unexpected factor in my indecision. After hiking with Friz over the past week I was finding it hard to imagine hiking alone for the next 5 days, and summiting Whitney without him by my side. Both him and Slippers had become like trail brothers to me. It was looking highly probable that by morning I would again be a solo hiker.
What a dreary, stormy, day…
Before falling asleep for the night, I made the closest thing I could to a decision. In the morning I would hike to the Bishop Pass Trail junction, and if I found Friz before getting to the junction I would keep going, and if I didn’t find him I would have a big decision to make. Should I stay or should I go?